Authors: Ellery Queen
Inspector Queen's Own Case
AT FIRST THE INFANT
The dove-colored Chevrolet was parked fifty feet from the hospital entrance. The car was not new and not old, just a Sunday-hosed-looking family job with a respectable dent here and there in the fenders.
The fat man squeezed behind the wheel went with it like a used tire. He wore a home-pressed dark blue suit with a few food spots on the lapels, a white shirt already damp from the early morning June sun, and a blue tie with a wrinkled knot. A last summer's Macy's felt hat with a sweat-stained band lay on the seat beside him.
The object in point was to look like millions of other New Yorkers. In his business, the fat man liked to say, visibility was the worst policy. The main thing was not to be noticed by some nosy noonan who could lay the finger on you in court afterwards. Luckily, he did not have to worry about impressing his customers. The people he did business with, the fat man often chuckled, would avail themselves of his services if he came to work in a Bikini.
The fat man's name was Finner, A. Burt Finner. He was known to numerous laboring ladies of the nightclubs as Fin, from his hobby of stuffing sharp five-dollar bills into their nylons. He had a drab little office in an old office building on East 49th Street.
Finner cleaned his teeth with the edge of a match packet cover, sucked his cheeks in several times, and settled back to digest his breakfast.
He was early, but in these cases the late bird found himself looking down an empty worm hole. Five times out of ten, Finner sometimes complained, they wanted to change their confused little minds at the last second.
He watched the hospital entrance without excitement. As he watched, his lips began to form a fat O, his winkless eyes sank deeper into his flesh, the pear-shaped face took on a look of concentration; and before he knew it he was whistling. Finner heard his own music happily. He was that rarity, a happy fat man.
The tune he whistled was
Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life
My theme song, he called it.
When the girl came out of the hospital the fat man was on the steps to greet her, smiling.
“Good morning!” the fat man said. “All checked out okay?”
“Yes.” She had a deep, slightly hoarse voice.
“No complications or anything?”
“And our little arrival is well and happy, I hope?” Finner started to raise the flap of the blue blanket from the face of the infant the girl was carrying, but she put her shoulder in the way.
“Don't touch him,” she said.
“Now, now,” the fat man said. “I'll bet he's a regular lover-boy. How could he miss with such a doll for a ma?” He was still trying to get a look at her baby. But she kept fending him off.
“Well, let's go,” Finner said curtly.
He took the rubberized bag of diapers and bottles of formula from her and waddled to his car. She dragged after him, clutching the blanketed bundle to her breast.
The fat man had the front door open for her. She shook his hand off and got in. He shrugged.
“Where do you want I should drop you?”
“I don't care. I guess my apartment.”
He drove off cautiously. The girl held the blue bundle tight.
She wore a green suÃ¨de suit and a mannish felt pulled down over one eye. She was striking in a theatrical way, gold hair greenish at the scalp, big hazel eyes, a wide mouth that kept moving around. She had put on no makeup this morning. Her lips were pale and ragged.
She lifted the blanket and looked down at the puckered little face with tremendous intentness.
“Any deformities or birthmarks?” the fat man asked suddenly.
He repeated the question.
“No.” She began to rock.
“Did you do what I told you about his clothes?”
“You're sure there are no identifying marks on the clothes?” he persisted.
“I told you!” She turned on him in fury. “Can't you shut up? He's sleeping.”
“They sleep like drunks. Had an easy time, did you?”
“Easy?” The girl began to laugh. But then she stopped laughing and looked down again.
“Just asking,” Finner said, craning to see the baby's face. “Sometimes the instrumentsââ”
“He's perfect merchandise,” the girl said.
She began to croon in a sweet and throbbing contralto, rocking the bundle again. The baby blatted, and the girl looked frantic.
“Darlin', darlin', what's the matter? Don't cry â¦ Mama's got you â¦”
“Gas,” the fat man said. “Just bubble him.”
She flung him a look of pure hate. She raised the baby to her shoulder and patted his back nervously. He burped and fell asleep again.
A. Burt Finner drove in delicate silence.
All at once the girl burst out, “I can't, I won't!”
“Sure you can't,” Finner said instantly. “Believe me, I'm no hard-hearted Hannah. I got three of my own. But what about
She sat there clutching her baby and looking trapped.
“The important thing in a case like this is to forget yourself. Look,” the fat man said earnestly, “every time you catch yourself thinking of just you, stop and think what this means to this fine little fella. Do it right now. What would it mean to him if you goofed off now?”
“Well, what?” she said in a hard voice.
“Being raised in a trunk, is what. With cigar smoke and stinking booze fumes to fill his little lungs instead of God's wonderful fresh air,” the fat man said, “that's what. You want to raise a kid that way?”
“I wouldn't do that,” the girl said. “I'd never do it like that! I'd get him a good nurseââ”
“I can see you been thinking about it,” A. Burt Finner nodded approvingly, “even though we got an ironbound agreement. Okay, you get him a good nurse. So who'd be his mother, you or this nurse? You'd be slaving all day and night to pay her salary, and buy certified milk and all, and it's her he'd love, not you. So what's the percentage?”
The girl closed her eyes.
“So that's out. So there he is, back in the trunk. So who'd baptize him, some hotel clerk in Kansas City? Who'd he play with, some rubberlips trumpet player on the junk? What would he teethe on, beer openers and old cigar butts? And,” the fat man said softly, “would he toddle around from table to table calling every visiting Elk from Dayton daddy?”
“You bastard,” the girl said.
“Exactly my point,” the fat man said.
“I could get married!”
They were on a side street on the West Side, just passing an empty space at one of the curbs. Finner stopped, shifted, and backed the Chevrolet halfway in.
“Congratulations,” he said. “Do I know this Mr. Schlemihl who's going to take another guy's wild oat and call him sonny-boy?”
“Let me out, you fat creep!”
The fat man smiled. “There's the door.”
She backed out, her eyes blazing.
Not until her shoulders sagged did he know that he had won. She reached back in and laid the bundle carefully on the seat beside him and just as carefully shut the door.
“Good-by,” she whispered to the bundle.
Finner wiped the sweat off his face. He took a bulky unmarked envelope from his inside pocket and reached over the baby.
“Here's the balance of your dough,” he said kindly.
She looked up in a blind way. Then she snatched the envelope and hurled it at him. It struck his bald head and burst, showering bills all over the seat and floor.
She turned and ran.
“Nice to have met you,” the fat man said. He gathered up the scattered bills and stuffed them in his wallet.
He looked up and down the street. It was empty. He leaned over the baby, undid the blanket, examined it. He found a department-store label on the beribboned lawn nightgown, ripped it off, put the label in his pocket. He found another label on the tiny undershirt and removed that, too. Then he looked the sleeping infant over. Finally, he rewrapped it in the blanket and replaced it beside him.
Then he examined the contents of the rubberized bag. When he was satisfied, he rezipped it.
“Well, bubba, it's off to a long life and a damn dull one,” he said to the bundle on the seat. “You'd have had a hell of a lot more fun with her.”
He glanced at his wristwatch and drove on toward the West Side Highway.
On the highway, driving at a law-abiding thirty, with an occasional friendly glance at the bundle, A. Burt Finner began to whistle.
Soon his whistle changed to song.
He sang, “
Ahhhhh, sweet mys-tery of life and love I found youuuuuuuuuu
The seven-passenger Cadillac was parked in a deserted lane just off the Hutchinson River Parkway, between Pelham and New Rochelle. It was old-fashioned, immaculate, and wore Connecticut plates. A chauffeur with a red face and white hair was at the wheel. A buxom woman with a pretty nose sat beside him. She was in her late forties. Under her cloth coat she wore a nurse's nylon uniform.
In the tonneau sat the Humffreys.
Sarah Stiles Humffrey said, “Alton, isn't he
Her husband smiled. “He'll be here, Sarah.”
“I'm nervous as a cat!”
He patted her hand. She had a large hand, beautifully groomed. Mrs. Humffrey was a large woman, with large features over which she regularly toiled and despaired.
Her husband was an angular man in a black suit so dreary it could only have been planned. A Humffrey had made the Mayflower crossing; and from the days of Cole's Hill and Plimoth Plantation Humffreys had deposited their distinguished dust among the stones of New England. His wife's family was very nearly as distinguished.
Alton K. Humffrey withdrew his hand quickly. Tolerant as he could be toward his wife's imperfections, he could not forgive his own. He had been born without the tip of the little finger on his right hand. Usually he concealed the offending member by curling it against his palm. This caused the ring finger to curl, too. When he raised his hand to hail someone the gesture looked Roman, almost papal. It rather pleased him.
“Alton, suppose she changed her mind!” his wife was saying.
“I wish we could have done it in the usual way,” she said restlessly.
His lips compressed. In crucial matters Sarah was a child. “You know why, my dear.”
“Have you forgotten that we're not exactly the ideal age?”
“Oh, Alton, you could have managed it.” One of Sarah Humffrey's charms was her clinging conviction that her husband could manage anything.
“This way is safest, Sarah.”
“Yes.” Sarah Humffrey shivered. Alton was so right. He always was. If only people of our class could live like ordinary people, she thought.
“Here he comes,” the white-haired chauffeur said.